The COVID-19 pandemic is severely disrupting life as we know it. The threat to public health, damage to local economies, and interruption to daily life has been unsettling as the crisis develops each week. Budgets play a central role in how governments respond to COVID-19, as emergency measures to ensure the health and safety of the community are implemented and leaders attempt to mitigate the impact of the virus. However, revenue shortfalls and the necessity to tap into reserve funds will result in inevitable budget cuts that will have an impact on every government’s strategic plan. As spending is reprioritized during the crisis, governments may be challenged to involve citizens on budget matters. But this could be the most crucial time for governments to be transparent and engaging with their citizens.
Budget decision-making during a crisis
Budgets have an essential role in how governments are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments are admirably stepping up in response to the virus by expediting new policies and legislation, providing financial assistance to businesses and citizens, and keeping the public informed as the crisis continues. To implement emergency measures, governments have rapidly shifted their spending priorities or have chosen to tap into rainy day reserves. This unexpected spending, compounded by a decline in expected revenues, will result in the inevitable need for budget cuts.
Every government will have to make tough choices about their budget when there is no foreseeable end to the pandemic. While the urgency of the pandemic may deter some governments from informing citizens about spending decisions, being open and accountable about budgets is now more crucial than ever. In this time of uncertainty, the pandemic demands swift and decisive action by government, but also greater budget transparency and engagement with citizens.
Gaps in budget transparency have always existed, but the complex issues related to COVID-19 can be particularly confusing to citizens. Public trust could deteriorate if governments appear to be taking action that seems arbitrary or that favors certain interests over others. By including citizens in the budget decision-making process, governments can continue to meet their expectations, as well as ensure they are providing an opportunity for the community to have a greater understanding of their budget decisions.
The benefits of citizen engagement
The goal of engaging citizens in the budget decision-making process is to ensure there is public feedback about the difficult choices being made. This requires informing citizens of emergency policy decisions and receiving their input on the necessary budget trade-offs. The result of this two-way communication is not necessarily to find consensus, but to foster a better understanding of government decisions.
Although the average citizen may not have the ability to contribute to a comprehensive financial discussion, they often hold passionate opinions about the values underlying the policies, programs or services that budget cuts would affect. When citizens have a better understanding of what governments are trying to achieve, they are more open to supporting tough budget decisions. More importantly, if they participate in the decision-making process, citizens are more likely to take ownership of the part they play and be committed to the decisions they supported.
Before the pandemic, most budget meetings were held in person at a physical location. With new social distancing requirements in place, governments are using technology to engage citizens and help them participate in the budgeting process. Some governments are using online meetings or asking citizens to comment on a PDF presentation. But what if governments could give citizens a hands-on experience that will help them truly understand those tough budget decisions?
Use complementary tools for citizen engagement
Questica’s partner Balancing Act provides an interactive budget simulation that allows citizens to view the budget and go through the process of creating scenarios to reallocate funds. By experiencing the challenge of making cuts, yet trying to balance the budget, citizens will have a deeper understanding of their government’s financial situation. As a two-way communication tool, citizens can send feedback and share their version of the budget with their elected officials or other citizens.
When revenue shortfalls and budget cuts are expected, governments who clearly communicate this necessity to citizens will be more likely to build public trust during a crisis. Questica Budget, cloud-based budgeting software for the public sector, allows government finance teams to collaborate on the budget remotely and be in a better position to see all of their options. Questica Budget includes a data visualization and transparency tool – OpenBook – that directly integrates with Balancing Act to provide a seamless flow of the most up-to-date budget data for citizens to explore while creating budget simulations. Citizens can search, filter and drill down through to the department or program level. Using these complementary solutions from Questica and Balancing Act, governments can engage citizens and offer them an opportunity to be part of the budgeting process during a crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic requires governments to make tough budget decisions. While governments may be challenged to involve citizens on budget matters during the crisis, this is a crucial time for engaging the public and building trust. Replacing a static presentation with a budget simulation like Balancing Act can be a powerful learning experience for citizens that builds support for government decisions. Using budgeting and transparency solutions like Questica Budget and Questica OpenBook will help governments collaborate remotely on budgets and evaluate all the options available for more effective spending .